Warden: Dogs Safe at Belmont Correctional Institution in St. Clairsville

Photo by Robert A. DeFrank Deanna Yoho, a staff member at the Belmont County Animal Shelter, is shown with Angel, a Doberman-Labrador mix who is part of a program at the Belmont Correctional Institution that allows inmates to foster and train dogs.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — For many years, prisons across the nation have been working with animal shelters to allow inmates to foster dogs and provide valuable one-on-one training to better prepare them for adoption.

However, the death of Evie — a 4-year-old German Shepherd found dead in a cell at Warren Correctional Institution in southwestern Ohio after apparently suffering blunt force trauma in late August — has given rise to outrage and anger among the public.

Locally, the Belmont Correctional Institution has long operated a similar training program without incident. The program is both popular with inmate participants and commended by the Belmont County Animal Shelter.

BCI Warden David Gray said the prison begins by selecting inmates of appropriate caliber and reinforcing responsible behavior.

“We go through a vetting process for the inmates who are a part of our dog program. We have partnerships with the Belmont County shelter, the Harrison County shelter and the Dogs for Warriors program,” Gray said, adding that Dogs for Warriors is focused on preparing dogs to be partners for veterans. “The other two programs take dogs that are difficult to adopt because of their breed or personality, and we try to work through those things and make them house-trained.”

He added that high standards are enforced.

“Our vetting process is pretty specific,” Gray said, adding that staff members closely monitor infractions and that no inmates with signs of predatory behavior are allowed to participate.

“There are a number of offenses that disqualify guys. … We do the best we can to vet those guys out in our facility to make sure the guys that are training the dogs are best prepared to take care of the dogs in a safe manner.”

Another important layer of precaution is the staff involvement and surveillance.

“The staff pay attention. There are cameras where the dogs are at so if there is any kind of trauma where a dog has been injured, we’d be able to trace that back and find out what happened and what the situation is,” Gray said.

He added that the dogs have their own cages to sleep in, and the prison atmosphere limits exercise to certain areas.

“We keep an eye on them and keep an eye on the process to make sure the dogs aren’t abused in any way, shape or form,” he said.

“Our position is, if he’s too rough with the dogs, if he doesn’t have the right personality, we move him out of the program. It’s just that simple. If this guy’s not participating, not doing the things we’re asking him to do or if he’s not following the instructions, we just get him out of the program and get somebody else in there. There’s a long list of guys who want to participate in those programs, so we have no trouble getting rid of somebody who’s not participating.”

The dogs also get regular visits by personnel from the animal shelter.

“Somebody (from the animal shelter) is in our facility most days. They take the dogs out for medical treatment, so they see the dogs fairly often. They see what their weight is, they see how they’re being maintained,” he said. “They know what we’re dealing with.”

Gray added that he has seen the program as a benefit to all concerned.

“These guys come in there and they obedience train them, they house train them, they cage train them. If they do get adopted, if they’re able to be adopted, they can become a family-friendly pet as opposed to something folks might fear.”

Belmont County Dog Warden Lisa Williams said the county animal shelter and the prison have worked well together. She said 20 dogs are usually at the prison at any given time — 10 at the main complex and 10 at the semi-separated area for work details and inmates transitioning to release.

“They keep a pretty good eye on stuff, we think. If something’s going on, they handle it. It’s been going on for years over there. It’s been a little over 10 years and we have not had any major issues,” she said. “We talk to them daily.”

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